TORONTO — It appears that little can be done for Yusei Kikuchi.
After a strong start to the season, the Blue Jays left-hander faltered in May, when his strikeouts fell, his walks increased and he was hit hard. But Kikuchi recovered well in June, hitting his best results of the season, including a seven-inning, one-run gem in Sunday’s 12-1 win over the Oakland Athletics.
This, as well as his last outing in which he threw six scoreless innings in a win over the Miami Marlins, were Kikuchi’s best looks of all time — which is especially helpful considering that the Blue Jays have a four-man rotation without Alek Manoah. and need their best from the remaining starters.
“If he gets convicted, I think he forgets sometimes that he’s got 96, 97 (mph) in the tank, too, but he’s in a good place now after his last two, for sure,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “He’s been pretty consistent for a long time.”
The key to Kikuchi’s success this month, where he’s posted a 2.28 ERA, is throwing his breaking balls — slider and curveball — with a little velocity, which gives them more breaks and helps them play in his fastball and changeup are more effective.
Consider that in April, Kikuchi’s slider averaged 89 mph and opposing teams hit .170 against it. In May, the slider was up to 90 mph, making it more of a cutter and creating less separation from his fastball. Hitters punished it to the tune of a .367 batting average and .800 slugging percentage. But this month, the slider is sitting around 88 mph and entering Sunday’s play, hitters are batting .212 against it.
Yusei Kikuchi, Destructive Sliders. 😨
5th & 6th Ks up to 4. pic.twitter.com/0qsbM3veCG
– Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 25, 2023
“Thinking about using the slider and getting that pitch around 87 to 89 mph,” Kikuchi said through his translator Yusuke Oshima. “Before it was a little hard, it was about 90 mph so that pitch was a little slower and worked well today.”
His curveball, meanwhile, is sitting around 83 mph this month, up from 85 mph in May, and the pitch is holding opposition batters to a .188 average. Kikuchi also used it more often, confidently ignoring it in any count rather than using it exclusively as a first-pitch strike.
On Sunday against the A’s, Kikuchi used his breaking balls to success, generating 10 of his 11 swinging strikes on the curveball and slider. The lefty retired the first 10 hitters he faced. The only run allowed was a solo home run to Tony Kemp in the sixth – one of just two hits he allowed while striking out eight and walking two.
At seven innings and 101 pitches, it was his longest start for the Blue Jays and the first time he had completed seven innings since August 31, 2021, when he pitched for the Mariners.
“The slow curveball is really good for him, landing it 0-0, and kind of stealing a strike and then just stopping hitters with the slider and fastball,” Schneider said of Kikuchi’s success. as he breaks the pitches. “When you have different speeds, it’s really difficult. And if you’re throwing strikes, it’s even harder, so I think the slider is now a well-executed ball-to-strike. That’s something that (he) and (pitching coach) Pete (Walker) always work on and talk about a lot. But I think the curveball is just kind of making the difference right now. And then when you have 96 (mph), that makes it play a lot more.
On the other hand, the offense gave Kikuchi an early lead. In the first inning, George Springer hit a leadoff home run – off the second pitch he faced from A’s starter Luis Medina – to give his team a quick 1-0 lead. It was the 55th leadoff home run of Springer’s career, moving him ahead of Alfonso Soriano for second all-time in MLB history. (Rickey Henderson was first with 81, which is hard to top.) Springer called the feat “special.”
“You never think about that as a kid or a player, but it’s amazing and I’m happy about it, but I’m happy that I was able to help us today,” Springer said.
The A’s sport the worst pitching staff in MLB with a 6.08 ERA, which should be a welcome sight for a Blue Jays offense that surprisingly has a tough time scoring, though yet an overall top-six offense per wRC+ (106). On Sunday, the Blue Jays finally got the offensive burst they’ve been lacking lately. After scoring two in the first, they continued to pad their run total, adding a run in each of the second, third and sixth innings before scoring two in the seventh and five in the eighth. , sparked by a three-run home run from Cavan Biggio.
The Blue Jays took the last two games against the A’s to pick up their second straight series win. Sunday’s blowout helped the Blue Jays average 7.7 runs per game in this series, up from their season average of 4.47. Not exactly an offensive explosion considering the competition, but maybe enough to get the bats off once and for all.
“When you keep adding up later, (Biggio’s) homer, (Santiago Espinal’s) big double, especially going into the day, (it) gives you a big breath and a deep breath and says, ‘OK , it’s coming,'” Schneider said.
Added Springer: “We started off with good quality at-bats up and down the lineup all the time. Now, again, it’s the big leagues, it’s hard to score, but I think the our guys in the last X number of days have done a great job of slowing down and getting something to hit and hitting it.
It was the first game the Blue Jays won by a margin of at least five runs since May 30. That offensive outburst and seven innings from Kikuchi helped lead to a relatively stress-free day for the Toronto bullpen that needs a breather after so much leverage. innings later, especially heading into an off day on Monday.
Yes, it’s against the league-worst A’s but it starts with Kikuchi’s continued solid pitching and is the kind of well-rounded win that the Blue Jays want to see more of as they reach the halfway mark. .
“As the game goes on, and you watch guys just put together quality at-bat after quality at-bat and you watch the ball get caught and obviously, our staff is great, you understand that this is what we can do,” Springer said. “But again, it’s until tomorrow.”
(Top photo by Yusei Kikuchi: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)